It is a testament to the overwhelming nature of Netflix in 2018 that, just a few weeks ago, the service debuted a steamy drama about an open marriage starring Toni Collette and it barely made a ripple. In October alone, the platform has unveiled the buzzy original series Bodyguard, The Haunting of Hill House and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, as well as new seasons of proven hits Making a Murderer, Big Mouth and Daredevil (plus a few dozen second-tier titles). Collette’s always-welcome presence aside, Wanderlust is the least splashy show of the bunch—but that’s part of what makes it so worthy of attention.
Set in Manchester, England, a city big enough to provide plenty of Tinder options but small enough for gossip to travel quickly, the six-episode series captures an intelligent, sophisticated and mutually loving middle-aged couple in a moment of uncertainty. Following a bike accident that put her sex life on pause, therapist Joy Richards (Collette) realizes that she has little desire to resume the ho-hum bedroom routine she and her husband, Alan (Steven Mackintosh), have maintained for years. When she tries to spice things up with lingerie and dirty talk, Alan—a teacher who has just returned home from a spectacularly unsexy day at work—can only offer an exhausted “I appreciate the attempt.” Soon, they’re experimenting with non-monogamy.
Their pursuit of new partners raises predictable questions: What happens if meaningless sex accidentally gets tangled up in emotion? Or if Alan’s colleagues find out he’s sleeping with his coworker, the touchingly sincere Claire (Zawe Ashton from the great British cult comedy Fresh Meat)? And what should they tell their kids, awkward teen Tom (Joe Hurst) and his older sisters, Naomi (Emma D’Arcy) and Laura (Celeste Dring)? But the story progresses in the same way that so many decades-long relationships do: At first, it’s all dating, sex and the thrill of the new. Only later, as the waves of oxytocin start to subside, do doubt, conflict and reflection creep in.
Each half of the show—the ecstatic reawakening and the reckoning that follows—has its own discrete pleasures, all of them grounded in characters that feel like whole, complicated people. A BBC/Netflix co-production adapted by creator Nick Payne from his 2010 play of the same name, Wanderlust could have felt like a male midlife crisis fantasy if the women weren’t so vividly rendered. In a performance that stacks up to her much-praised turn in Hereditary, Collette’s Joy is the vivacious yet vulnerable driving force behind the opening of her marriage. As Claire, Ashton isn’t a homewrecker but a thoughtful young woman who’s self-aware enough to worry about being shunted into that role.
Joy and Alan’s children widen the show’s age range, touching on romances between people of different sexual orientations and varieties of emotional baggage, but Tom’s storyline is pretty standard first-love fare, and his sisters are a bit underwritten. Wanderlust is better when it stays focused on its central couple, spinning the rare grown-up story about sex by honoring the Richards’ maturity and their familiarity with each other. On series like Girls, Looking and Sex and the City, promiscuity comes across as a metaphor for aimlessness of a conspicuously youthful variety. But in many senses, Joy and Alan are content—secure in their careers and rooted in a family they treasure.
If they’re hurtling toward a crisis, it’s one of self-knowledge. One of the year’s most artful hours of television is the fifth episode, which encompasses the entirety of Joy’s session with her own therapist, Sophie Okonedo’s insightful, measured Angela. A beautifully acted two-hander, the conversation moves fluidly between the past and the present, untangling subconscious connections between love, sex and death forged in Joy’s childhood. Though it does feel a bit like a commercial for psychoanalysis at times, Payne and Collette earn that endorsement by convincingly sketching their character’s mental landscape without resorting to therapeutic cliché.
There is, unquestionably, too much Netflix. There are also too many TV shows on streaming services, cable and premium channels that squander their freedom to air explicit content on empty titillation or simplistic equations between sex and psychology. Wanderlust is something much richer and more adult. And it’s pretty hot, too.